Dr. Cecil D. Mercer
UF Department of Special Education
2001-2002 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
Mentoring doctoral students is one of the greatest responsibilities and privileges of my job as a university professor. When an individual decides to pursue a PhD and devote several years of his/her life to such an intense time of learning and personal growth, it is indeed an honor to be asked by that person to be his/her mentor throughout the process. Perhaps the best measure of a mentor’s effectiveness is the number of doctoral students chaired and their service to the field. Fortunately, during my 28 years at the University of Florida, I have had the opportunity and pleasure of mentoring 31 doctoral students through graduation (28 chaired, three co-chaired). Also, I am currently chairing three others. My work with these students has significantly fostered my own professional growth. For example, I have had the opportunity of writing 27 published articles or book chapters with 23 different doctoral students. I also have four manuscripts in progress with four additional doctoral students. Moreover, I have co-presented with many of my doctoral students at conferences or in university classes. Currently, 19 of my doctoral students teach in university settings including Johns Hopkins University, University of Virginia, Penn State University, University of Kentucky, University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and five universities in Florida including the University of Florida.
Effective Mentoring Involves Teaching
My basic philosophy and mission in teaching is simple yet demanding: Share appropriate information, content, and strategies in a learner-friendly format under motivating conditions to facilitate lifelong learning. The sharing and discussion of appropriate knowledge is essential to effective mentoring. The rapid growth of knowledge, the changing demographics of society, and the modifications of school structures demand that we constantly pursue new information. For me, this ongoing pursuit of cutting-edge information leads to many activities including attending professional conferences, reading professional literature, publishing scholarly works, conducting research on teaching and learning, developing curriculum, and collaborating with other professionals. I believe the mentor and the student should approach the learning process within the context of a vision or mission. This perspective should lead to passion about learning. Helen Keller stated, “Many persons have the wrong idea about what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” The purpose of this approach is to inspire the student to learn and develop and enjoy his/her doctoral program. I share the following statements with doctoral students: A task without a vision is drudgery. A vision without a task is dreaming. A task with a vision is an opportunity to make a difference.
Mentoring Involves Counseling
In mentoring, I focus on working with students to help them choose academic and career directions. We consider such questions as the following: Does the student enjoy teaching adults? Does the student possess good teaching skills? Does the student enjoy conducting research and writing? Does the student have good writing skills? Does the student wish to work at a research-based university or a teacher-education oriented university? Does the student enjoy teacher preparation? Does the student prefer theoretical or applied paradigms? What research topics and writing projects excite the student? Does the student have the ability and desire to learn and work independently?
After a few semesters of helping the student identify his/her strengths, weaknesses, preferences and goals, a prescriptive doctoral program is developed. Then the student is encouraged to use all available resources to achieve his/her professional and personal goals. I encourage my students to take courses from the best professors throughout the university. Several of my students have worked with professors at others universities to finalize a research question or design an assessment device. I try to be careful not to become possessive of my doctoral students. I discuss with my students the importance of self-growth and maintaining balance in their lives. Research indicates that individuals learn more in positive and supportive environments; thus, I encourage students to maintain a positive disposition. To do this, I share with them a collection of thought-provoking stories and the works of Covey, Peck, Siegel, Frankl, Thoreau, McGraw and Kushner. I believe that when appropriate information is provided to motivated students in a supportive environment, the process of lifelong learning is facilitated and new knowledge builds upon past knowledge to result in personal growth.
Effective Mentoring Involves Modeling
Peter Senge discuses the importance of modeling in the following passage: “The core leadership strategy is simple: Be a model. Commit yourself to your own personal mastery. Talking about personal mastery can open peoples’ minds somewhat, but actions always speak louder than words. There is nothing more powerful you can do to encourage others in their quest for self-mastery than to be serious in your own quest.” Given that a university professor engages in many activities under the umbrella of research, teaching, and service, I mentor my students by encouraging them to observe professors perform their many functions. I also try to be a model of a productive professor in my teaching classes, advising students, presenting at conferences, consulting in schools, providing service in organizations, conducting research, and writing articles, chapters, books, and grants. My students and I discuss the importance of each of these activities and the skills and time involved. If I had to label my mentoring process, I would refer to it as guiding the student along a learning path of “informed discovery.”
Sample of Student Accomplishments
These following represent a small sample of the works of my doctoral students:
One is President of the Division of Learning Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children (membership exceeds 10,000) and one is President-Elect.
Five have nationally adopted textbooks.
Two have been awarded outstanding researcher in their respective colleges.
One is one of the nation’s top consultant in direct instruction.
Two have published curriculum materials that are nationally adopted.
One is Department of Special Education Chairperson at Penn State University.
Two have become top-level administrators in large public school districts.
Four are currently principal or co-principal investigators of federally funded teacher preparation and/or research grants.
I think Ben Sweetland was very insightful when he stated, “We cannot hold a torch to light another’s path without brightening our own.”